Monday, January 9, 2012

What do Edith Wharton and Joey Tribbiani have in common? Pretty much nothing...

Am I the only one who is really getting back into Edith Wharton? Oh…I am the only one? Well in that case, I’ll just start this whole thing over…

Let me tell you why you should really be getting into Edith Wharton. I’ll go ahead and start by saying that she was a genius. Wharton was the first woman to win the Pulitzer Prize and her writing is prolific. In her novels, she explores late-nineteenth century American society with a raw and honestly critical view. Wharton gives us a glimpse into the dysfunction and cruelty that was inherent in upper class men and woman of the time. And why should we care about late-nineteenth century society? Because those customs and those socialites are our heritage; our social stigmas, traditions, and absurdity are a direct ancestor to Edith Wharton’s subject matter. She may just give us a lens through which we can understand ourselves.

In The House of Mirth specifically, it’s the cruelty that strikes the reader. Wharton’s characters (Mrs. Dorset, Mrs. Trenor, Mrs. Fisher, etc.) are the original Mean Girls. Each chapter provides you with at least one opportunity to utter the phrase, “Oh no she didn’t!” Their gossip and aptitude for stepping on people to advance themselves literally ruin the main character’s life. This cruelty is set among social traditions that were intact over a century ago, but it’s not at all difficult to translate them to today’s world. People still gossip. People still use other people as means to an end. People still ruin other people’s lives without considering the consequences. In fact, if I could make this novel a required read for every teenage girl in America, I wouldn’t hesitate to do it. We need to learn from our history and shed light on what we do to each other in the name of social advancement.

The main character, Lily Bart, was easy to relate to (for me anyway); a single 20-something woman who is feeling the pressure to marry rich. Landing a rich husband will mean stability and a constant flow of the finer things in life. However, she feels the pull of her more intellectual, independent side as well. Lily gets so close to happiness (either with a rich husband or the intellectual love of her life, Lawrence Selden) so often in the book but manages to ruin it in one way or another, every time. She’s not a stupid character. She understands the implications of her actions. It is the internal struggle that keeps her from achieving her goals, because she can’t be sure what goals are the most important to her. Of course, having the “Mean Girls” (and men) completely ruin her reputation multiple times throughout the novel doesn’t help. Poor Lily just wants stability, but she’ll either have to settle in a loveless marriage or settle for a frill-less life.

As a 21st century reader, you want Lily to stand up to those ho-bags , get them back with the gossip she has, tell her man that she loves him, and live her life above it all. But there are social conventions (and a lack of resources) holding her back. That’s the part we struggle to relate to. Most of us grew up as empowered women who are encouraged to stand up for ourselves and not tolerate injustices. In many ways, we may just have Edith Wharton to thank for that kind of thinking.

Having already read The Age of Innocence and Ethan Frome (both Edith Wharton novels), I knew better than to expect a happy ending to The House of Mirth. I also knew that this novel was written in the vein of The Awakening by Kate Chopin and Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy which pretty much told me where things were going. Without ruining it more than I already have, I will just suffice to say that I consider this novel to be what I call a “freezer book”. A book which reaches a point (or many points) that is so frustrating/upsetting/sad/etc. that you just have to put it in the freezer to get some space… à la Joey Tribbiani:

And now, a social tip from Mrs. Edith Wharton:

"It is almost as stupid to let your clothes betray that you know you are ugly as to have them proclaim that you think you are beautiful"
~Edith Wharton, The House of Mirth

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